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Cinema Café

Cinema Café

A New Tone For Dinner Theater

Dinner and a movie? Sounds like a good date night, but at Cinema Café, it's what's on order, all the time. And, after 30 years, this restaurant-and-movie concept continues to draw in customers looking for a totally different kind of movie-going experience.

Guests to any of Cinema Café's four Hampton Roads, Virginia-area locations (a fifth, the largest, is currently under construction) can enjoy movies in a comfortable setting that includes wide leather chairs set at low counter-like tables. Why counters? Because when you're ordering burgers, pizza, salads, baby back ribs and more you want a comfortable, stable place to eat.

Sure, eating something other than a traditional bag of popcorn, candy and a soda at the movies (which you can also get) may seem like a departure from the norm, but the way founder and owner John Walker looks at it, it all comes down to going out for an evening meal and a good time.

"The main focus really is entertainment and to make sure the customer has a comfortable, fun time," Walker says. "And we try to stay affordable; that's one of our values."

With the price of entry at movie theaters across the country ringing in at an average $8.17 per ticket, according to the National Association of Theater Owners, hitting a Cinema Café looks like a steal. Prices at the theaters range from $1.50 to $8.25 depending on the time of day and location. And when you consider getting a full meal isn't required, a night out at the movies just became that much more appealing — especially for a family.

"We keep it family friendly, which is very important to us," Walker says. "We're casual. We don't try to overdo it. We keep the food and pricing low. It's an every week or any day event. We concentrate on our employees and customers having fun. It's entertainment — it's supposed to be fun."

When Walker and his business partners first opened Cinema Café, they took over an existing theater and converted it to suit their model, which was originally called Cinema N Drafthouse. They continued with that method for the next three locations, buying larger buildings with more screens to accommodate more demand. Their newest theater, targeting a fall 2015 opening in Chesapeake, Va., is a ground-up, new construction, 10-screen theater that will cost about $12.5 million. Walker admits building a new theater is a risk, but it's one he and his partners are willing to take. "The company does well with the other locations and the new location should be very good," he said. "All the research we've done shows new builds do better. And there are no other theaters in that market. We're trying to capitalize on that."

Today, Cinema Café employs between 250 and 350 people (depending on time of year and season) and will add another 100 when the fifth location opens. Walker said in addition to holding classes on the "art of whispering" to help serving staff be quiet and more stealth while taking orders and delivering food and drinks during a screening, they also give them the tools to interact better with customers.

"We try to empower employees to make decisions; it's a learning experience," Walker said. "We have a culture team and try to get the people who deal with customers directly to make decisions on how they run their departments." Throw in company-assisted healthcare, 401(k) plans, programs for pre-tax dollars to be put aside toward day care, medical and more and, of course, free movies, and Cinema Café becomes an even more attractive place to work. "If your employees are happy, customers are happy," he added.

Of course, with changing times, Cinema Café, like any movie theater, needs to remain up to date. They invest in having the most current technology in audio and video, keep their theaters looking clean and remodel to stay fresh and current. But in the end, Walker reiterates it's all about having a good time out at the movies.

"It's a fun business," he said. "Don't take it too serious, have fun and keep it light."

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